the Shopping Mall Gorilla
By Julie Hughes
Of all the stories about human commodification and exploitation
of animals, the shocking cruelty of trade in wild animals, and our collective
failure to consider their interior lives and manifest needs for companionship
and dignity, none perhaps is more moving than that of Ivan the gorilla.
Ivan, a magnificent silverback gorilla, spent 27 years imprisoned in
a display window at a now defunct Tacoma, Washington discount shopping
mall. Ivan was there to attract shoppers who would ogle him as they
strolled by, spending a pleasant day shopping for additions to their
wardrobe or kitchen counter. Ivan was not alone in the store: the owner,
Earl Irwin, had a menagerie of exotic animals in his bizarre circus
of commerce. Ten years ago, Ivan’s plight was made public in the
newsletter of the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), a nonprofit
organization dedicated to raising awareness of animal issues. Thanks
to PAWS’ efforts protesting, getting petitions signed, undertaking
public education and, finally, through lawsuits, two years ago Ivan
began a new life at Zoo Atlanta along with 17 other gorillas.
Up to the very end, however, the children of Earl Irwin made things
difficult. They insisted on a clause in the contract which barred Zoo
Atlanta from divulging anything about Ivan’s previous owners or
his upbringing, and stipulating that the transfer must be referred to
as a “gift” rather than a “rescue.” The Zoo
reluctantly complied and Ivan was free, or as free as a captive animal
can be, to socialize with others of his species after almost 30 years
of solitary confinement.
At first, Ivan was wary of his new surroundings at the zoo. Having been
subjected to a hard concrete cell for so long—the only semblance
of nature a fake waterfall painted along the wall—Ivan was curious
about almost everything; the feel of grass and rainwater amazed him.
Throughout his time at the mall, Ivan had had no contact—visually
or physically—with others of his species; he had been brought
from Zaire with a female companion, Burma, who died shortly after arrival.
Ivan, therefore, needed an extensive resocialization program and was
introduced to his peers slowly. When he first arrived in Atlanta, Ivan
spent three months in quarantine where he was checked for serious ailments
and then moved into the Ford African Rain Forest exhibit.
When I called Zoo Atlanta last month, a spokesperson informed me that
Ivan is doing quite well. He has learned how to behave like the proud
silverback he is, by charging, vocalizing, and displaying. He also seems
much more relaxed. In fact, he has just been introduced to an older
female named Shamba, who, according to the Zoo, has been smitten with
Ivan for over a year. The staff at Zoo Atlanta is hoping for possible
offspring in the next few years.
Ivan’s story appears to have a happy ending but what becomes clear
after a closer look is that this tragedy should never happened in the
first place. From the time of Ivan’s birth, to his kidnapping,
shipment to the U.S. and imprisonment, Ivan was a victim. He had no
opportunity to roam free, mate, run or climb. Remarkably, although perhaps
instructively, he now displays no unusually aggressive or disturbed
behavior for someone who has been kept in miserable conditions for most
of his life. Everyone connected to his rescue and release speaks of
Ivan in the kindest and most respectful of terms.
Ivan’s story is also a lesson in the abuse of the private ownership
of exotic and wild animals. Some individuals, well-meaning though they
may be, feel they will be able to provide for an exotic animal: they
“ape-proof” their house, buy the right food, and give up
a great deal of their life to devote to this animal, much like one would
do for a child. Other owners have monetary reward in mind. They purchase
these animals, not as oversized “pets,” but as commodities.
Both categories of exotic animal owner continue an injustice.
How many more Ivans are out there? When I spoke to Dan Wharton, Director
of the Central Park Wildlife Center, he informed me that there are presently
only two gorillas privately owned in the country and that situations
such as Ivan’s are thankfully rare. These two privately owned
gorillas are held captive in a small Florida zoo; however, PAWS is working
to change their status in much the same manner as Ivan’s. There
are a greater number of chimpanzees held captive in the U.S. than gorillas,
although no precise numbers exist.
We can all make a difference. Never buy a fad pet—nowadays it’s
a hedgehog, a few years ago it was the pot-bellied pig. Never visit
a “roadside zoo,” (or any similar institution which has
not been accredited by the American Zoological Association) unless it
is to find possible violations! The longer people continue to pay admission
fees, the longer these establishments will stay in business. And for
the more vocal of you out there, yell, scream, write letters and protest.
After all, it worked for Ivan.
Editor’s Note: Satya called Zoo Atlanta
in May 2004, and Ivan is still alive and well.
Julie Hughes is a former Satya Editorial
Assistant. For information on the Progressive Animal Welfare Society,
or call (425) 787-2500.